He's got it all - fame, money and talent. But there's much more to David Beckham than that. Here he talks to Ian Ridley about fatherhood, Fergie - and how terrace taunts brought him to the brink
When the camera is trained on him, he goes immediately, automatically, into that famous and familiar moody, brooding look. You wonder if Sir Alex Ferguson has it right when he talks about the fun-loving boy having become an introverted young man, or whether it is just a professional pose that Manchester United and England's golden vision has picked up from his wife Victoria.
After all, a similar attitude to the lens has proved marketable and profitable for her in another branch of showbiz. Either way, David Beckham is yer average snapper's dream, a top photographer's challenge. Because of his good looks and natural relationship with a camera, it is as easy to get a cracking shot out of Beckham as it is for United to get one from a free kick 25 yards out. Because he has been changed by painful experience of these eagle-eyed, green-eyed times - where the price of talent and fame is death threats, an attempt to snatch his son and a stalker - that guarded, sullen, photogenic look is both non-committal mask and a way of telling people he doesn't yet know or trust not to come too close.
It could be that which Ferguson has sought to understand and explain. But it is not the essence of Beckham and the challenge is to find the hidden reality. It emerges when you spend some time with the man who is a supposedly shallow media face but a substantial figure on the football field. It is to hear and glimpse the unexpected.
To the people who believe life is an intellectual exercise, rather than an emotional journey, Beckham appears to be a dumbbell. For a man whose eloquence and intelligence is best with a ball at his feet, he doesn't do half bad in revealing some unsuspected feelings and thoughts, however. 'Absolutely,' he says when you ask him if he agrees that those who have it all are not allowed to have down days. And he admits to having them, admits to having the potential to 'crack up' over remarks about his wife and son.
In private, this is not the man whose public image is supposed to echo Dorothy Parker's comment about the actor who 'ran the gamut of emotions from A to B'. You ask him something routine, for example, about the recent goalless draw in Kiev. 'It's always hard going over to places like that,' he begins to reply and you anticipate him saying something like it being because Eastern European teams are so well-organised, but then he adds 'and you see the poverty over there and then come back to your life.'
He pauses and looks pensive for a moment before expanding. 'When we were coming back from training the main streets were pitch black. There was, like, a little lamp on each street corner. It was hard to sign autographs over there because the people were so, sort of, intense, but I did the best I could, signing as many as I could because that, and I'm not sounding big-headed, but that to someone, stopping and signing autographs, means a lot. You look at these people and realise how lucky you are.'
The first unexpected aspect to Beckham had come an hour earlier. We were sat, the photographer, one of Beckham's agents and I, at a pavement caf* in the well-heeled Cheshire village that is his northern base. With the stealth that disarms full-backs, he suddenly appeared from nowhere, having noticed us on his way home from training and pulled up his silver BMW, one of the fleet of cars he so loves driving, especially at 2am for 'the freedom of the road'.
When introduced, he smiles, offers a hand and fixes you with an eye contact surprisingly prolonged and confident for one said to be so shy. His flat surprises, too. No sign of the stereotypical footballer's World of Leather interior here. The wide halls are lined with favourite framed photos from matches and intimate pictures of the Spice Girls, like Mel C on stage in a Brazil shirt and Mel B plucking the eyebrows of her now estranged husband Jimmy Gulzar.
There is also a copy of that tableau painting by Michael Browne, The Art of the Game, autographed by the subjects, which features Eric Cantona in imperial Roman pose with his young team-mates, including Beckham, at his feet and Ferguson at his head. In the kitchen, there look to be at least 100 greetings cards urging Victoria - at home with her parents today recovering from viral meningitis - to get well. Behind a door with a silver star on it inscribed 'Brooklyn's Room,' their son naps under wall paintings of cartoon characters.
Beckham himself likes to relax by drawing Disney characters but he wanted someone better for the murals, he says. We settle in the tasteful lounge, in two of the three deep, cream fabric sofas set around a thakat table and the widest of widescreen televisions. It does not dominate the room, though. Nor does a touching photo of Victoria and him in embrace. That falls to a 3ft-high Buddha. Only Brooklyn's toys, which include a mini sit-in sports car, disturb the ambience here, as does a bag of Pampers back down the corridor.
You can bet Beckham knows that Feng Shui is not the name of some Japanese full-back he may encounter in the next World Cup finals. It's funny. You think you know everything there is to know about Beckham because he seems to be such public property these days and you wonder what new questions you can ask him. You soon realise how much time you would need to get a full picture.
He has a new book out, My World, and it contains some fascinating insights, both verbal and pictorial. It is, it should be said, a quick response to the prospective publication of an unauthorised book which was contested in the courts by Beckham and his wife, by Andrew Morton, formerly the controversial chronicler of Diana, Princess of Wales. In retaliation, Beckham has clearly been advised to launch a charm offensive, of which a television appearance with Michael Parkinson and quite probably this interview are parts.
There is more in his book than I thought there would be, I tell him. 'A lot more than I wanted there to be,' Beckham says, and that dilemma between wanting to open up and fearing the consequences surfaces. It courses through his conversation. Yes, Manchester United would beat England, he says instantly, before adding 'No. I don't know. I can't really answer that.' You find out that he has been, he admits, inches and seconds away from thumping an abusive member of a crowd and that he understands 'totally' what Cantona did five years ago when he leapt feet first at a fan. He quickly has to add the politically correct rider that what Eric did was wrong.
You find out, too, that he wears a new pair of custom-made boots for almost every game, unlike most professionals who prefer a worn old pair, because he likes to look smart and feel good. That makes around 300 pairs so far around this mid-point of the 25-year-old's career. He keeps all the used-once pairs 'somewhere in London', he says, but is hesitant to tell you where. It takes a while for you to realise why he is so reticent, then you understand; some budding Imelda Marcos out there could well be tempted into a bit of breaking and entering.
We start, once he has finished his chip butty with ketchup, by talking about Manchester United. It is, after all, for all the peripheral matters, the blood that courses through the veins of his varied life. With United so dominant in the Premiership in early season, the title is already as good as won, isn't it?
'People always say when we are playing well that we've won it already but I think to us it's never over until the last ball's kicked in the last game of the season. We play till then. If we were to believe what people say about the team and the players, we probably wouldn't be as ambitious as we are.' You wonder if it ever gets boring, winning games so comfortably, and whether this might be behind some uncharacteristic recent squandering of comfortable leads.
'It never, ever gets boring,' he says. 'Against Everton, the first half was probably the most enjoyable game of football I've played in, not because we were hammering them, or winning two or three-nil, but just the way we were playing. It was such good football, such enjoyable football, the way we were passing the ball about, the times I was getting on the ball.
'Even when I'm not involved in some of the moves, I can look at it and smile because I think how lucky I am to be in a team like this that plays this football. There is a lapse in concentration sometimes for five or 10 minutes and a team gets back into the game but I don't think we're a team that takes the mick out of teams. The respect thing is always there towards other teams because they are professional players playing their best and trying their hardest. We are taught that as we come through the ranks at United. Like we're taught that it's important not just to be playing good football at the start of a game but also at the end of the season.'
Never was that better seen than in United's Treble year, when they won the European Cup with the last two kicks of the campaign. Is this team even better? 'I wouldn't say we were better but we are a more experienced team. I think we have learnt from our experiences of playing in Europe and winning the Premier League. We go into Europe and know what to expect from these teams most of the time.' Like the routine goalless draw in Kiev? 'That's the good thing about it.'
The 3-1 defeat at PSV Eindhoven intruded as motivation anew. It is remarkable, love them or hate them, that United retain the same thirst for trophies season after season, just when you think they may have peaked.
'I don't think I'm at my peak yet and I don't think this team is at its peak yet,' says Beckham. 'Because most of us are still young, still 25 and 26, we've still got a lot to learn from the game. There are still a lot of trophies to be won. We are not getting ahead of ourselves and we're not being big-headed.'
Remarkable, too, that United maintain an astonishing appetite for work during games, the factor which distinguishes them from rivals who may have as much talent. 'That's the good thing about our team,' he says. 'You don't get players hiding during a game. Players work hard not just for themselves but for the team. If you look around the team, every player works for each other. If one player goes forward, another will step in.
'That was the work ethic we have had pumped into us since we were apprentices. Me, Gary, Phil, Scholesy, Butty, Giggsy, we were brought up to work hard at our game and we knew the rewards in front of us if we did. We had to go back in the afternoons and some of us went back in the evenings to work with the kids who were coming up when we were apprentices.'
Now in the afternoons, Beckham will sometimes go back and practise free-kicks with bare feet, to improve his feel for the ball. 'It's something I have always done,' he says, and no, it doesn't bruise or damage his feet. 'I did have bad toenails and a fungal infection in all my toes around the World Cup but I got put on tablets for six months and that cleared it up.' Was it true that the youth team coach Eric Harrison's motto to the apprentices was to play the game and not the occasion?
'Yeah. It was the best thing to say to us really. Because when you are at a team like Man United you can step on to the pitch and look around and think, "Oh my God, what am I doing here?"' Has he ever felt that? 'Never. Sometimes I look around and think, "Jesus, I am a lucky person."' It echoes what Sir Alex, who often speaks of what makes a Manchester United player, once said of Eric Cantona; that he walked into Old Trafford and stuck out his chest as if to ask if the club was big enough for him.
'You have got to have a certain amount of arrogance to play at Man United, whether people like it or not,' adds Beckham. 'It is such a big club with so many expectations of you as a player. If you look through the United teams over the last 10 years, they have had players who have got the arrogance and the determination to win. That's pumped into us even at a young age. We have all got the aggression. It's been proved a number of times. We all stick together and that's the important thing.'
The criticism arising from their attitude, you put to him, is that United are ungracious in victory, let alone defeat. 'We are ungracious in the extent of we just hate, despise losing. It's not like we won't shake players' hands. We are not that sort of team. We'll accept it if we've been beaten but we hate it. That's what makes us the players and the team we are. People always sing "we hate Man United" but you always get them asking for your autograph afterwards.'
The affinity for United, the club given to him by his dad Ted, is deep. Has he never thought of leaving, not even when dropped last season for the match against Leeds after an argument with the manager over him missing training to look after Brooklyn? 'Never,' he replies, quick as a flash. 'There was something in the papers that weekend that this could be it but I never even thought about it.
'I was on international duty that week and me and Gary [ Neville, his best friend and best man at his wedding] just talked about what had happened. We decided the best thing I could do was get my head down, get it sorted and get playing again.' There was a suggestion that Neville had told him to cut out the showbiz lifestyle. 'No,' adds Beckham. 'Gary would never say that. I might be pictured at a party or be in the papers but he knows that even though my wife's in the pop life, I am level-headed and concentrating on my football.'
You suggest that what he is going through, with all the public scrutiny, resembles George Best in the Sixties, when United didn't understand the phenomenon of stardom. 'I still don't think they do,' he mutters. Beckham is clearly a different personality from Best, however. He cites his favourite night in as a video and Chinese takeaway with Victoria, and night out a meal in a restaurant with her. Perhaps it is even worse these days, with all the media outlets. 'Most of the stuff that goes into the papers is a load of crap,' he says. 'There was a story saying Walkers wanted to bring out Smoky Beckham crisps and I was supposed to be going to court and taking proceedings because I didn't know anything about it. I was asked about a year ago but I didn't think it was right for me.
'People believe stories about me spending £1,200 on a pair of jeans and they think, "He's big' or whatever.' Then he laughs. 'I buy a lot of clothes and I do spend most of my money on clothes but unless I really liked them I wouldn't buy them. And I didn't like them.' The story about the new boots for every game, told to me by an England player, is true. 'I like the look of new boots and I feel good in new boots,' he says, agreeing that he has a need to feel clean and smart all the time. He breaks the routine only if he has done especially well in one pair, or scored a particularly good goal, in which case he will wear them again.
'I used to give some of the old ones with "Becks" on the tongue away to charity or back to adidas but since I had "Brooklyn" on the tongue I don't give none of them away any more. 'We get phoned up about stories every day. Some you just laugh at and others are hurtful, saying things that are so not true. There was a story saying me and Victoria were arguing because she was spending so much time doing her new single. Which is a load of crap. [The story, not the single, you should explain on his behalf.] I don't know whether they are trying to get to us or make people not like us but it's things like that that upset us.'
Actually, the two are probably well aware that doting celebrity couples may be interesting to the well-paying glam mags but are less exciting to the mass market red-top papers who know that rifts sell better. Along with controversy. 'People say, "Oh he's going off the rails, he's down in London, or living in London,"' adds Beckham. 'I've never lived in London while I've been with Man United. People like to stir things up and make the manager believe things.' So does the legendarily watchful Ferguson phone him to see what he is up to?
'He's done it once but I think he rings other people around me. There was one occasion about two months after the Leeds game. It was said I was flying here, there and everywhere, to Italy, to Spain, and he rang me up one afternoon when I was going for a sauna in Manchester. He said, "Where the eff are you?" I said, "In the car." He went, "Oh right. I've just had a call saying someone's sat next to you in Barcelona airport." I think he gets calls all the time about me. Some of them he doesn't believe and some of them he's got to check out because they could be true.'
It is a, shall we say, interesting relationship with the manager. 'Beyond whatever has gone on between me and the manager or whatever's been in the papers,' he replies, 'I think there will always be that respect from me to him and hopefully him to me.' Is it true that the players privately call him Taggart, after the dour Scottish TV detective? 'I don't. I don't think so. They wouldn't get away with it.' And did Beckham have that shaved haircut to avoid the notorious 'hairdryer' treatment, when Ferguson stands in a player's face to berate him? He smiles. 'I've had it a few times. I had it with Eric Harrison in the youth team.'
Beckham no longer keeps it secret that he would prefer to play in the centre of United's midfield, as he did for England last month against France. 'I look at players like Zidane and they are playing in the middle and getting more involved in the game than I am on the right,' he says. 'That's the position I want to play and in years to come hopefully I will. It's just something I want to do and have always wanted to do. But it won't be until the manager gets another right winger, I don't think. He has said in the past that I could if he finds a player who can cross the ball as well as I do. But you never know. He might just get rid of me if he gets another right winger.'
Is it therefore possible that he might have to leave Manchester United to fulfil that ambition, to overtake Rivaldo, to whom he finished runner-up last year as World Player of the Year? 'Not really. Even though I want to play in the middle, I am still playing quite good football on the right. At the end of the day, if I am happy in my life and my football at Man United, then I won't make any changes in it. It's up to me and my family, up to me if I am happy football-wise. And I am happy. I've had the offers, you see things in the papers about Barcelona and Milan and Madrid and you think about it, but if I am happy I don't see why I should move anywhere else.'
It might be difficult, you suggest, to find such a well-oiled team into which he would slip so easily. 'That's the thing that makes my football enjoyable. I have grown up with these players, we know each other's strengths and weaknesses and we gel. People can always have their opinions, like to become a great player you have got to play in Italy or Spain, but happiness is more important. It's my decision. People will say, "Oh it's Victoria who's making the decisions." It will never be Victoria who will take me away from Manchester United.' And the suggestions that he is under her thumb? 'I'm not even bothered,' he says. 'People can think what they like. I know the truth.'
You venture that it's a nice thumb to be under. 'Course it is. It could be a horrible, nasty thumb but it's a very beautiful thumb. People are always going to stir things up between me and Victoria. They say she's the boss but we know the truth.'
Might it be the abuse he has endured, notably after the sending-off against Argentina in France '98, that could ultimately drive him away? It seems not. 'I had a lot go on after the World Cup. Victoria was away on tour and I was in the house, the old house in north Manchester, on my own. I used to go driving at two in the morning a lot because I couldn't sleep. I was missing her and I don't need that much sleep anyway [though he also admits, when he does nod off, to being able to sleep through the loudest of alarms]. I like it at that time of the morning and I do like driving. You have just got the freedom of the road. I don't do it so much now because I can sleep now I am a father.
'But all that stuff definitely made me stronger as a person. Made me change the way I thought about things and people. A lot of good came out, not that I want it to happen again but looking back, it was good for me in a weird way. I was glad it did. If that hadn't happened, something else would over the next couple of years.' Here, that steely side of his personality appears, as you ask him about certain critics' reaction to the Argentina red card. He repeats the remarks of the new book, which stick out amid all the generally good-natured text, just as his self-destructive periodic spits of temper on the field punctuate his largely creative game.
'I'll get them back one day, a lot of people who said things about me on TV and in the papers, a mixture of people,' he says calmly. 'I couldn't name names at this point in time but in my own way maybe I won't get them back but I'll always remember that. I don't hold grudges but if someone has said something nasty about me and my family, then I remember it.' You suggest that putting them in a wall 10 yards away from a free-kick of his might be satisfying. 'That would be nice,' he replies.
And the stalker? 'That was six or seven months ago. She just used to come up to the front door. Appear. She got put in care and we've not seen her again, touch wood.' Then you curse yourself for your insensitivity in suggesting that you know you've made it when you've got your own stalker. He smiles a wide smile, as if he's heard that one in the dressing room. 'It's not nice, though,' he says. Then, what about the attempted snatching of Brooklyn outside Harrods last year?
'It's something that happened that was a warning for us. We knew from letters we had got and things people had said that he's not going to have the most normal of lives but as parents we are trying to get him to live a normal life. It is going to be difficult to find a school but as long as we are happy with what's going on inside the school then I don't think there will be a problem. You can be paranoid to a certain extent but in the end it'll start affecting your life and we don't want that.'
You can imagine he is actually looking forward, as a proud dad, to standing outside the school gates waiting for the bell. It is the comments about Brooklyn from the stands that get to him most. The worst elements seem to have moved on from Posh Spice's imagined sexual preferences to, disgracefully and depressingly, hoping that Beckham's son gets cancer. And he confesses to having been close to emulating Cantona's assault on a fan.
'I totally understand it. Things happen on the pitch and things happen off the pitch. What fans shout these days is horrendous, even worse than five years ago with Eric. Eric knows he was wrong but at the end of the day, that's his way.' And when has he been tempted to react similarly? 'Most of the time it's been at Chelsea or West Ham. West Ham are bad. Southampton as well, they're one of the worst. The things they say are the worst I have ever experienced. I have even got used to stuff about Brooklyn now. I've got to. Because if I don't, then I will just crack up.
'I just get on with it. I don't like it. It upsets me. It kills me them saying it about either of them. Victoria has always said to me, "Just think what they are doing. They are getting their aggression out on you and going home to probably a sad life." She always turns round and says that if you are ever at that point, just think about what you've got and what you are doing. These people would do anything to be playing for Man United and England. I've got to think of that straightaway or I could do something.'
He has, he says, confronted abusers. 'I have turned round sometimes to the crowd when someone's, like, shouting and I can actually hear them saying what they are saying and I look them in the face and they will just stop because they are embarrassed.' Then his sense of humour breaks through. 'Unless it's Chelsea or West Ham. Then I look away again.'
He has sensed some change in mood, he says, since Euro 2000, during which he gestured back towards abusive fans after England's defeat by Portugal. He was, after all, one of the country's few successes of the tournament and says of the developing attitude to him: 'It stunned me in a way when I got a player of the year award from the fans [in a recent television poll]. To get that after what people sing and chant about me, that was something that meant a lot to me.'
So has he feared playing for England? 'I don't fear it. I don't enjoy it probably as much as I could do but I enjoy it more than I used to. At the end of the day, people shouting at me would like to be out there.' Has he ever thought to himself, I don't need this? 'Never. Jimmy Greaves said in an article that players are paid all this money and not even bothered about playing for England but that's a load of crap.'
Then there is a veiled criticism of Glenn Hoddle, once a personal hero who turned into a villain when he dropped Beckham in the World Cup. 'The atmosphere has changed now,' adds Beckham. 'Players always want to play for England but the week leading up to the game has got to be interesting and I think that's changed now. Players enjoy the week more.'
What about the criticism of Kevin Keegan, that he may not be up to the job internationally? 'I don't think it can be done any better than it is being done by the staff and the manager. They are doing their best. They can pick the team and organise us but it's up to us to go out there and do the right things and win, which we didn't in Euro 2000. Against France, I felt that the team was so much better the way we played, more like playing for a club team because of the atmosphere between the players and the way they stuck together.
'Because I have played so many games now for England I do feel more comfortable than I have ever felt. I love playing for England. I get a buzz stepping out in front of 90,000 fans. Some of them like you, some of them don't. But they all cheer when you score.' And then he laughs at himself. 'Or when I scored,' he adds, referring to the under-performing return of one goal, a brilliant free kick against Colombia, from his first 35 appearances. And for all the abuse, he would clearly like to be captain. You tell him that Keegan has been on the radio, saying that he would consider Beckham as captain if Tony Adams is injured. His face breaks into a broad smile. 'That's cheered me up. Interesting,' he responds.
For all the craziness of the past few years, Beckham confesses that he will miss it when it is over. 'Of course. I know I have got things I want to do after I finish playing [skiing is one, though being anonymous enough to take Victoria and Brooklyn and future children camping may be fanciful] but I enjoy football so much it's weird not to think I will be doing it all the time.
'I don't want to be a manager or a coach. I'd rather put myself into kids football. I will have had stress and hassle for the last 20 years so it will be a relief not to. I just like to see kids playing football and having a laugh.' He himself still gets that childish feeling of when he was a teenager and he would pass up the opportunity to drink cider on street corners with his mates because he wanted to be in watching Match of the Day then to bed in anticipation of his Sunday morning game.
'I hate night games because of the waiting,' he says. 'I love playing in the mornings. Up early, playing early. It's a good feeling. I love playing Saturday-Wednesday, Saturday-Wednesday because at Sunday League level I used to play on a Saturday and Sunday, a Wednesday, a Friday, then Saturday and Sunday again.'
As he has gradually opened up, it seems like a good time to ask him about all the jokes, the Becks and Posh, thick and thin, stuff. 'It's a laugh. Them sort of things are funny,' he says. 'It's different when people are slagging you off and being personal.' He hasn't seen the Alistair McGowan impression he says, but laughs politely when you tell him about it.
Then it is time for the photographer, time for me to help keep the now-awake, toddling cutie Brooklyn (whose vocabulary seems to consist of 'mamma', 'dada' and 'foo'ball') amused by kicking about his 'Fred the Red' Manchester United ball with him. 'What shall I wear?' Beckham asks his agent. And all of a sudden the look, what the Americans call the 'game face', is back.
• 'David Beckham - My World' is published by Hodder and Stoughton at £16.99. David Beckham is doing a limited number of signing sessions. They are: Thursday 19 October (5-7 pm) W H Smith, 34 Peel Avenue, The Trafford Centre, Manchester (0161 755 0299); Sunday 29 October (noon-2pm) Borders, 203 Oxford Street, London W1(0207 292 1650); Tuesday 31 October (12.30-2.30 pm) Easons, O'Connell Street, Dublin (00353 18733811).